“Working class students kept from top jobs!” “Private school graduates earn more!” The papers bleated in recent weeks after a number of studies by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Sutton Trust, and UpReach caused a swell of righteous indignation among the major news platforms.
It appears that private schooling propels pupils to gain higher grades, enter top universities, gain all important soft skills like “assertiveness and articulacy”, and eventually go on to earn more money and secure better pay increases, even than their working-class peers within the same industry.
Wow! Parents who pay more than £12,000 (on average) to send their children to private school actually expect some sort of return on this investment?
It’s not just the educational aspect of private schooling which has an influence, a very brief comparison of UCAS applications from independent vs state school applicants revealed such disparities in experience as:
“My extensive involvement and success in assisting my father in his international company shows my ability to handle situations in the real world.”
“Next summer I have been offered a work experience placement to shadow the Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, in New York.”
As opposed to:
“Last year I worked in Aldi and in a local bakery, which gave me experience of dealing with a variety of customers’ demands.”
“I have a part time job in a local pub where I work as a waitress and a barmaid.”
Responding to these divisions in the experiences afforded to people of different socio-economic groups, and the resulting financial gains afforded to some, Ernst and Young has announced that it’s removing all academic and education details from its trainee application process. The move has been applauded as a way to improve workplace diversity.
Here at TheSchoolBus, we’re all for equality of opportunity, but I can’t help but wonder whether a significant piece of this puzzle has been ignored in recent news.
Yes, if you go to private school you’re more likely to enter a profession like accountancy, banking or law. You’ll be joined by a majority (60 to 70 percent) of your privately educated peers in this profession, and you’ve a good chance of rapidly outstripping the earning potential of your state-school counterparts.
But this isn’t just about doors being closed to everyone else. Believe it or not, not everyone wants to work in a high-powered, financially-lucrative sector.
When the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission announced in June that 70 percent of elite job offers in 2014 were made to graduates who had attended a fee-paying school (despite these individuals only accounting for four to seven percent of the overall population), Alan Milburn, a former Labour party cabinet minister said it showed “young people with working-class backgrounds are being systematically locked out of top jobs”.
Is this the case though? Is it really as cut-and-dry a dichotomy as upper-class (powerful, aggressively capitalist) locking out the working-class (powerless, passive) graduate? This simplistic explanation just doesn’t sit right. Since when did a working class graduate, who’s supposedly made it to university ‘against the odds’, become so passive that they’re suddenly resigned to having every door slammed in their face? Could there be a more nuanced explanation? Perhaps a more holistic view would show that “how and where you grow up affects how you think – about the world, about others and about yourself”.
Perhaps the elites who make these sweeping statements about locked doors need to pause and consider for a moment their assumption that social mobility into the upper and middle-class should be universally desired.
As Michael Watts, a lecturer in education at the University of Cambridge, pointed out:
“Higher education is not for everyone and it does not necessarily offer wellbeing…We have different conceptions of what constitutes a good life.”
Jacqueline Stevenson, reader in widening participation at Leeds Metropolitan University added fuel to this point of view, agreeing that “people do not necessarily aspire to a middle-class way of being”.
Throw into the mix the fact that the stellar salaries the Sutton Trust’s research focussed on often arise in sectors like finance, banking and law, and there is a whole raft of additional considerations.
Of the banking sector in particular, Richard Posner, federal judge and University of Chicago professor, pointed out that:
“Such a business model attracts people who have a taste for risk and attach a very high utility to money. The complexity of modern finance, the greed and gullibility of individual financial consumers, and the difficulty that so many ordinary people have in understanding credit facilitate financial fraud…”
Perhaps as people who traditionally don’t have a great deal of experience with the benefits of such positions, for example in the form of effective informal careers advice or role models, such industries might not appear particularly appealing. Perhaps the London lifestyle and “aggressive culture and spotty ethics” of big financial firms and banks aren’t an attractive prospect to all graduates.
And what of those who cross the cultural divide? Socially mobile working-class professionals can experience barriers, such as a lack of shared cultural experiences, different attitudes towards people and relationships, differences in lifestyle and different cultural reference points to the privately educated majority in their chosen profession. This doesn’t even touch on the socio-political rifts it can raise among families. Imagine, for example, that Billy Elliot had instead had a talent for legal reasoning. Would it really have been accepted, returning home for a visit from his role in a commercial law firm, to advise his family that he’s representing the mining company against striking workers? That he’s charging a small fortune to do so? That would make for an interesting sequel!
No, this is about far more than which school you went to, it’s about what you’ve learned and had reinforced every day of your life. Earning lots of money doesn’t make you a happier, more fulfilled person. All this talk of “high status jobs”, and the government’s assertion that it is determined that “every child, regardless of background, reaches their potential”, forgets that what defines success is different for different people.
A survey yesterday revealed that, the happiest places in Britain “tend to be rural and, in the main, miles from London”. This is the antithesis of modern definitions of success which often revolve around the country’s financial capital and its higher salary earners. Maybe if there were more working-class voices speaking on behalf of their graduate community, these realities would make their way into the headlines too. I guess that means joining the halls of power though… Let’s see what the take-up’s like on those Ernst and Young places.
 Oliver Griffin (2015) ‘Working class students kept from top jobs’ <http://economia.icaew.com/news/june-2015/working-class-students-kept-from-top-jobs> [Accessed: 18 August 2015]
 Eleanor Harding (2015) ‘How private education pays in your first job’ <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3186843/How-private-education-pays-job-Ex-pupils-fee-paying-schools-earn-4-500-state-educated-rivals-assertiveness-articulacy.html> [Accessed: 18 August 2015]
 Katherine Sellgren (2015)
 Oliver Griffin (2015)
 Oliver Griffin (2015)
 Michelle Brook (2014) ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ <http://quantumplations.org/2014/02/05/what-the-hell-am-i-doing-here/> [Accessed: 18 August 2015]
 Jack Grove (2011) ‘Widening access: are we imposing middle class values on everyone?’ <https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/widening-access-are-we-imposing-middle-class-values-on-everyone/416881.article> [Accessed: 18 August 2015]
 Jack Grove (2011)
 Neil Irwin (2014) ‘Why can’t the banking industry solve its ethics problem?’ <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/upshot/why-cant-the-banking-industry-solve-its-ethics-problems.html?_r=0> [Accessed: 18 August 2015]
 Peter Brant (2014) ‘Who’s frightened of being middle class?’ <https://smcpcommission.blog.gov.uk/2014/02/26/whos-frightened-of-being-middle-class/> [Accessed: 18 August 2015]
 Neil Irwin (2014)
 Michelle Brook (2014)
 Katherine Sellgren (2015)
 Katherine Sellgren (2015)
 Anna White and Peter Spence (2015) ‘Where affordable meets desirable – the best places to live in the UK’ <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/property/11802315/Mapped-Where-affordable-meets-desirable-the-best-places-to-live-in-Britain.html> [Accessed: 18 August 2015]
 Billy Ehrenberg and Sarah Spickernell (2014) ‘Where can you earn most in the UK?’ <http://www.cityam.com/206242/where-can-you-earn-most-uk-pay-london-much-higher-any-other-part-uk> [Accessed: 18 August 2015]